Taking a long-distance train is not the fastest mode of transportation, but it’s certainly much more relaxing than being crammed into flying metal tube with 150 of your closest friends. As long as you’re not in a hurry, it’s a great way to unplug, de-stress and maybe even meet some new friends. It's something everyone should experience, because there are few better ways to experience the country.
1. The Ever-Changing Scenery Is Unbeatable
The desert of Eastern Utah is seen from the rear of Amtrak's California Zephyr
Sure, your Instagrams of airplane wings at sunset are pretty, but can you really appreciate the scenery below while traveling at 35,000 feet and 600 mph? There's no such thing as flyover country when you take the train. Our nation's geography is as gorgeous as it is diverse and there's no better way to experience it than by long distance train.
Start your day in the Great Plains. Eat lunch in the Rockies. Watch the sunset over the snow-covered Utah desert with Arches National Park in the distance. That's just another day aboard Amtrak's westbound California Zephyr, a daily train between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area.
For breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, don't miss the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle. Sit on the left going north and on the right going south.
Amtrak's oft-delayed Empire Builder takes you through stunning Glacier National Park in daylight all year going eastbound and in the summer going westbound.
2. The Passengers
The Pacific Parlour Car of Amtrak's Coast Starlight.
Most people on long distance trains are not in a hurry. For some passengers, they'd fly if they were. For others who live in more rural communities, the train might be one of the only options for them to get around, so they generally know what to expect.
This leads to a great environment on board. Most people are friendly and chatty, and you meet tons of interesting people on board, ranging from college professors to North Dakota oil workers. People tend to be focused on the present -- their fellow passengers, the onboard environment and the scenery -- as opposed to their destinations.
3. The Staff
A sleeping car attendant greets passengers boarding Amtrak's California Zephyr in Fraser/Winter Park, Colorado.
Most of the staff of Amtrak's long distance trains treat you like family. On Western trains that are 3-day, 2-night trips, you end up spending a lot of time with your train attendant (whether you're in the sleeping car or coach) as well as the staff of the dining car. You learn about them, their families, their job and the railroad. Most of these crewmembers are individuals who exemplify good customer service. Don't forget to tip them!
4. The Food
People eat breakfast in the dining car of Amtrak's Sunset Limited while the sun rises out the window.
Yes, you read that right: The food. These trains have dining cars, which function exactly like a restaurant on rails. A lot of the entrées are prepared fresh on board, and they are actually pretty good. The Amtrak Signature Steak, cooked to order, is a passenger favorite. Vegetarian and lighter fare are also available.
The dining car is open for three meals a day, which are included in your fare if you are staying in a sleeping car. Reservations are always required for dinner, sometimes required for lunch and never required for breakfast.
Snacks and more inexpensive options are also available in the train's café area, which sells alcoholic beverages in addition to the dining car.
5. The Sleeping Car
A roomette aboard Amtrak's Capitol Limited.
There are few experience like lying in bed with a train gently rocking you to sleep. For a few hundred dollars extra, depending on the route, this highly recommended experience can be yours. By day, your accommodation is a private room with wide seats or even a couch. By night, your sleeper attendant will transform the seats it into a bed. A bunk also will fold down for an additional bed. You'll drift off to a deep sleep in no time if you travel this way.
Another perk of being in a sleeping car is the showers. Some passengers have access to a private shower in their own rooms, while others can use a communal one. Regardless of which one you use, taking a shower on a moving train is quite a fun experience.
6. It's A Great Way To Unplug
WiFi is generally not available on these trains. Cell service is often spotty.
And guess what? That's not a bad thing. Taking the train is one of the best ways to unplug and just watch the country pass by. You can finish books, write manuscripts and take lots and lots of pictures. None of these require calling, texting, chatting or emailing. And that's a good thing.
The author has traveled nearly 10,000 miles aboard Amtrak's long-distance trains.